Sarah and Jenifer Caplan grew up in a very strict household in which they were taught to strive to be the best at whatever they did. As a result, they both found professional success, though they embarked on slightly different career paths. Jenifer ended up in accounting after a brief stint in marketing and public relations, and Sarah took the corporate route with a job at J. P. Morgan. But both of their careers took a decidedly dramatic turn when an old idea from years past resurfaced.
One day, while she was in college, Sarah was on the phone complaining to Jenifer about the discomfort of wearing high heels all the time. In fact, she had taken to carrying a giant bag with an alternate pair of shoes inside when she went out at night. As a throwaway comment, she said that someone should invent a shoe that rolls up and can fit into a purse. She had no idea that the idea would stick with Jenifer for years to come. Then, one day, Jenifer called Sarah at work and said, "Do you remember that shoe idea you had? I'm going to do it. Do you want to do it with me?"
Though it seemed like a crazy idea, the two were soon off and running. They created a company, incorporated it, they chose a name, and then set about figuring out how to make a shoe that could roll up and fit in a purse. Once they had the product, they started at a trade show stopping everyone who passed by to show them what they had, and people absolutely loved the idea. Suddenly, the orders were rolling in and three months later their product was featured in Oprah magazine. Footzyfolds was a hit and the sisters soon found themselves at the helm of a multimillion-dollar company.
Though the sisters say that creativity was not something that was fostered in their home during their childhoods, it was a creative and spontaneous inspiration – an idea casually tossed into a conversation -- that would eventually lead them to the ultimate success.
How Can You Start Your Own Company?
Advice From the Caplan Sisters
How did you get your products on shelves?
Tenacity, perseverance and never accepting 'no' as an answer. Listening to feedback from buyers and adapting to their needs to make your product better and more relevant. Always have a reason to go back to the buyer that told you 'no' with something for them to tell you 'yes' about.
Where are your products sold now? What what your first big break?
Our shoes are sold at over 3000 retailers nationwide including Bloomingdales, Fred Segal, and Dillards as well as through international distributors on 5 other continents. Being recognized by Oprah was our most significant break early in the process. Oprah is an amazing media presence and the nearest thing to Midas in contemporary times. The goodwill generated through association with her brand has done amazing things for companies like ours.
How would you advise someone to reach buyers?
The best way is to exhaust all of your personal relationships and find out who in your personal network knows whom. Most specialty retailers have underdeveloped merchant organizations and many times you are dealing with the owner. More professional buyers from large retail organizations require a strategic approach. Also, using LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. are amazing tools that can help you get into contact with anyone! Dialing a corporate office number and just asking for the buyer will also get you in touch with the right person.
What kind of margins do retailers expect?
It varies by retailer. Some specialty private label retailers expect margins in the 70s while some other retailers are happy to land in the 40s. Its determined by history of each individual company and the promotional cadence what an acceptable margin is. What you need to ask is... "is that a natural margin?"
Do you deal with distributors? How do you find a rep or distributor? Pitfalls to watch for?
We currently use rep groups domestically and distributors internationally. Ask around. Ask buyers, other manufacturers in non-competitive products but similar markets. Speaking to others and learning from people within the industry is a huge asset. Avoid companies/sales reps that make sales promises, demand exclusives for unrealistic geographic areas and want to charge you unreasonable fees for showrooms and trade shows. That said, when you get good representation, protect them. Live up to your promises. Pay them on time. Treat them like gold and forgive minor transgressions. Sales are the life blood of your company.
How do you find packaging?
Find an amazing Graphic Designer. Work very closely with her to figure out the best way to display your product. Walk the stores, look at other ways products (similar or not) are packaged and displayed in different stores. You can create different packaging for the same exact product differently. For example, we are on our 3rd or 4th iteration of packaging. We package differently depending on the customer and the store space.
How do you play big when you’re a small company?
Present yourself big. Bring big ideas and big solutions. Think big, but remember your limitations in terms of supply chain and infrastructure. Do not over promise and under deliver. You don't get a second chance. All of these transactions are conducted by people. Be the most prepared player in the room and you can win big. If necessary get help.
Do trade shows help or hurt? How do you approach trade shows to reach buyers?
Trade shows are a mixed bag. Go prepared to listen to every possible combination of questions and comments and you will still be surprised by what happens. Understand your goals before you go and determine what success looks like. This is an expensive proposition. Try to book appointments with buyers in advance if you can instead of trolling the hall and reading name tags. Also, look to share trade show space with companies that complement your product. Sharing is a great way to save on costs and you can also help cross sell with their customers.
If you could share any story and lesson with our audience, what would it be?
Time is not your friend. If you have success do not think it will just continue and grow. Sharks that stop swimming die. It is highly competitive out there and bigger, more established companies will come along, steal your ideas and eat your lunch if you are not prepared. Have appropriate capitalization to cover your business model and spend wisely. Be legally protected at all times when possible. Trademark, patent, copyright, distributor/rep group agreements, non-disclosures and non-competes exist for a reason. Read them and use them. The best advice is to have an attorney who can help you answer questions that is on your side. Legal bills can rack up quickly and before you know it all of your money goes to legal. Look to have a partner/friend be there for you as an attorney and at least give you a discounted rate!